This exacting mother’s high standards, and her parenting practices in the service of these standards, have alarmed parents, educators, and mental health experts. Throw your child onto the frigid porch and threaten to keep her there until she obeys you? Menace her with the thought of her stuffed animals burned to a crisp unless she works harder to perfect a difficult piano piece? Reject your children’s birthday cards because they were conceived haphazardly? What mother in her right mind would do such things?
To my mind, as both a parent and developmental psychologist who studies family, school, and cultural influences on learning and motivation, the heated national discourse about Chua’s memoir have obscured the fact that she has delivered a well-deserved blow to our national obsession with children’s happiness and self-esteem.
Independent of what one may think of Amy Chua’s socialization techniques, and setting aside the fact that disciplinary practices are not universally interpreted in the same way, there is a great deal of truth in her assessment of typical middle and upper middle class American parenting beliefs. We have become so consumed with worry over our children's self-esteem that we take pains to manufacture it.
My college students are in possession of shelves full of athletic trophies they know they did not deserve. My children have been awarded certificates of honor for displaying quite ordinary behavior that should have been expected of them, such as being a good friend, mastering a list of spelling words, or listening to the teacher.
And the honor of being valedictorian—the one person whose achievements should be held in the highest regard and lauded by teachers and peers alike—has been eliminated in many high schools because we don’t want other students to feel bad by comparison (as if everyone does not already know who the highest achiever is).
Regrettably, many in our society look down on academic excellence, and assume (as have Amy Chua’s critics) that as a group, high achieving students lack social skills and suffer mental health problems.
While I have not chosen to raise my children in quite the same way as Chua, her experiences resonate deeply with my own. My refugee Jewish parents, who were expelled from Egypt in the mid-1950s, were compelled to rebuild their lives in a strange culture, with an infant and a toddler in tow. An unspoken anxiety over survival hung over our family throughout my childhood. If either of my parents ever lost a job, there was no one to whom they could turn for assistance.
Academic excellence, then, was the only guarantee of a good life. My colleague Jin Li, of Brown University, has written about Chinese conceptions of learning and described high achievement as a “cultural imperative”. This was my experience in my parents’ home. I came to view academic achievement as an obligation, both to my family and my faith. I have imparted this same view to my children, and have been derided by educators and parents alike, who never took kindly to my view that substantive homework is an essential component in the development of mature learning.
Many parents today feel that they are obligated to their children to ensure their happiness, even at the expense of their learning. In contrast, I feel obligated to prepare my children for the increased challenges that schooling brings as they get older, even at the expense of their happiness.
When our primary focus is on our children’s happiness, they cannot possibly learn the meaning of obligation—that everything cannot be about and for them. Parents who wish to shield their children from the stress of concerted effort are denying them opportunities to develop critical academic and life skills—the ability to persist in the face of challenges, to delay gratification, and to endure boredom.
Too few middle and upper middle class American children receive the message that preparation for adult life involves hard work and sacrifice, and they are the worse for it. Some of them end up in college, lacking the discipline to do their work well and advocating for higher grades simply because they tried hard.
And so, while I would not engage in a “screaming hair-tearing explosion” if my children came home with less than an A, I do believe that Amy Chua has delivered a powerful message about the dangers of protecting children from hard work and sacrifice in the name of happiness and self-esteem.
Janine Bempechat is an Associate Professor of Human Development at Wheelock College and the director of the college;s Center for Scholarship and Research